03 March, 2024

The wonder of Polynesian Migration and Navigation

In our many prior expeditions with Lindblad National Geographic, we have often noted on the quality of the experts on board, almost always naturalists, but also historians, culturalists, dive and underwater specialists etc. This time was no exception, and it is so impressive to learn from genuine professionals in their field, always passionate about their subject and articulate in their presentations. All expeditions seem to have a "theme" and we would read the overacrching topic of this one to be "Polynesian migration and navigation". It was Matahi Tutavae and Jennifer Kingsley of the Orion's Expedition Team who led our learning on this subject. Matahi is Tahitian born, and was the first president of the Tahiti Voyagers Society. Jennifer is an elite National Geographic Explorer, and an award winning journalist and story-teller.

Basically, people who would become Melanesians and Polynesians were successfully crossing and recrossing the huge Pacific Ocean, finding and charting (using their memories, nothing written down, although maps were drawn on the ground) tiny islands in a massive sea using their knowledge of the stars, the sun's and moon's passage across the sky, the characteristics of wind and tide, the behavour of certain birds when near land, clouds ete etc. All this without any aids like clocks, compasses or sextants, and all while the advanced European nations were persecuting scientists for positing that the earth was spherical and rotated around the sun rather than the other way.

The migration progress across the Pacific Ocean took literally thousands of years, and learning of the navigational skills must have started off with trial and error, almost certainly involving massive losses at sea as skills were accumulated. But learn they did, and they bred a series of elite master or Pwo navigators that progressive Europeans like James Cook would slowly start to appreciate. The migration is said to have started in Taiwan around 2500-1500BC reaching New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga around 1000BC. After a very long "pause", the migration reached the Cook Islands and Tahiti (700AD) and then Hawaii and Rapa Nui (900AD) and, later, New Zealand (1200AD). These are the last lands to be occupied on earth, by homo sapiens. (We pondered why the Australian aborigines never acquired the skills or the determination to cross the Tasman Sea to New Zealand despite 60,000 years of habitation of their large continent. Maybe they had so much land themselves and not a great population, that they never felt the pressure to expand beyond Australia's long coastline? Matahi accepts that as one theory, but he believes that the Polynesians innate culture was to preserve relationships between clans, whereas the aborigines were happier as separate tribes who did not interact too much. This distinction led the Polynesians to be more inclined to travel those oceanic highways.)

Polynesian migration map from https://www.worldhistory.org/image/10691/polynesian-migration-map/. Image credit David Eccles via Wikipedia

Colonisation by various European nations, most notably Great Britain and France, and the impacts of determined Christian missionaries, has meant that the culture of the Polynesians was largely erased (and tragically forgotten) by assimilation and coersion. It's only in relatively recent times, say since the 1970's (the first recreated voyaging canoe being the Hokule'a which sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti), that there has been a renewed effort to relearn and re-establish the skills acquired by those ancient Polynesians. This was no mean feat, especially with regard to seamanship and navigation. Now, throughout Polynesia, numerous recreations of the "voyaging canoes" have been built, and, by relearning the art of celestial navigation and successfully navigating the Pacific, they have proved themselves to great acclaim from descendants of the early Polynesians. In this revival, there have been ten Pwo navigators, seven of whom are still alive, and women are joining the ranks for the first time. Matahi has sailed on a voyaging canoe across the Pacific. Even in Taiwan, a recreation of the past is gaining enthusiasm.

These days, Polynesia is loosely described as a huge triangle with Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) at the corners. A lot of water, hundreds of islands, but not much land in total. Rather than dividing individual islands, Polynesians regard the ocean as joiningthem. The ocean is a highway, and canoes are their vehicles. Wikipedia names fifteen separate countries as occupying that space, and perhaps it is a pity that it is not one nation in the legal rather than cultural sense? (It would be the largest nation in the world, in surface area.) Perhaps this would help restoration of culture and experience? We asked if the independent South Pacific nations are faring better in this respect than those which are still dependent on motherlands, notably France. Apparently not - we were told that the French government is very supportive of Polynesian history and culture and is encouraging its re-emergence.

Cultural map of the South Pacific Ocean by comersis.comhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kahuroa - Source: https://comersis.com/Derived work from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_Culture_Areas.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=140411094

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